by Arekpitan Ikhenaode
My first bra was pink. When my mom gave it to me, I immediately wore it on my shirt, wrapped a scarf around my chest and marched to Chinyere’s house to show her my bra. Chinyere, three years older than I was, made all the appropriate sounds, commented on the little animals drawn on the cotton material and then, she asked me to sit for her more exciting news. Always had come to her school
She told me how they came out of their pink vans dressed in similar T-shirts, how they taught about menstruation and how they shared free sanitary pads. She told me that before they did all these, the boys were separated from the girls and kept in a hall.
And after they entered their pink vans and drove off, the boys came out begging the girls to tell them “the secret” and show them “the gift.” The girls refused.
In my fourth year in university, I told my roommate I was going to start using menstrual cups.
She smiled before saying, “Only married women should be allowed to use menstrual cups. People like you, including all those secondary school girls, will abuse it.” And as she made to explain the ineptitude of secondary school girls, she began her narration from the day Always visited her school.
In her school, the boys were asked to go home while the girls were gathered in a hall. The story would have been like Chinyere’s except that in hers, some of the boys that were sent home returned to school to find what the girls were hiding. They jumped the school’s fence. Some were caught and punished but some were not.
This is 2020. Coronavirus is on everybody’s lips and I am indoors, protecting myself and reading Adaobi Nwaubani’s Buried Beneath The Baobab Tree. A few pages into the book, a female character went to school and there, she encountered women dressed in similar T-shirts alighting from a pink van.
They showed them menstrual charts, gave them free pads and as usual, while all this was going on, the boys remained in class, separated from the girls.
For the first time, it struck me how truly normative this experience was for many Nigerian adolescents. I realised that many of us had, at some point, known this kind of separation and secrecy. Many girls have hidden, and still hide, sanitary products from boys. Many boys have asked, and still ask, to be shown sanitary pads.
These stories tell us two things. The first, Always has done really remarkable work in our schools and the second, that boys indeed want to learn about women’s bodies. By denying boys this basic education, we indirectly tell them to learn it elsewhere. We tell them we don’t even care if they go ahead to learn wrong things about menstruation and menstruating women.
All over the world, women are treated differently when they menstruate. Many are seen as too unclean to talk to God or their fathers and brothers. Many are not allowed to serve food or drink water from the same pot with the rest of their families.
Many can no longer share the same roof with those who are “clean.” Some even refrain from going to school for fear of being stained, needing to change their pads or facing ridicule from the opposite sex.
On the 13th of September, 2019, Ginger Hervey reported in the U.K Guardian that a 14-year-old Kenyan schoolgirl died by suicide after being period shamed by her teacher. I have never been period shamed but I know what it feels like to be so worried about being stained that black becomes your favorite colour, and the women around you become stain detectives.
I know what it feels like to go to a shop and wait for other customers to leave before I whisper to the shop attendant that I want to buy Always. Like other women, my sanitary pads are wrapped in several layers of polythene before I put them in my bag or purse.
Like other women, I have taken my period questions to Google and I have stumbled on that part of the page where you see questions that other people have asked. Can men smell the blood from afar? Can men tell if I’m menstruating? Do I smell different when I menstruate?
Till date, I have not been patient enough to read the answers but this is what I know: at the end of the day, women care what men think.
By locking our boys in halls, we fail to recognise that these boys will not get this education elsewhere. We fail to recognise that these boys are young, impressionable and are at a point in their lives when whatever they are told, will form opinions they may hold for the rest of their lives. By telling them to go home, we deny them the opportunity to stand in solidarity with girls who have no choice but continue to menstruate.
Separation means that girls will continue to find euphemisms for menstruation. Separation means that menstruation is special and that this special thing is none of their business. Separation means that stigmas surrounding menstruation and menstruating women will continue to thrive.
The next time a pink van drives into a school and the lecture is given to both boys and girls, we will be ripping the hideousness that surrounds menstruation-centered conversations. We will be creating a world where fewer men will laugh at stained women and fewer women will talk about their periods with shame.
We may never be able to change the minds of adult males but young boys are like clean slates. We can write what we want on them. We can start new conversations with them. They can ask questions and we can give answers. While this will ensure we no longer have boys jumping school fences, we also will be ending a menstrual culture that no woman should be a part of.
Arekpitan Ikhenaode writes creative nonfiction, literary fiction and opinion pieces as often as she can which, unfortunately, is not very often. When she’s not telling other writers what to write, she blogs at myfaithhassle.com. You can find most of her writing on her Medium page